Veterans helping veterans is goal of ‘dog whisperer’s’ Shelter to Soldier program

By Diane Y. Welch

While Shelter to Soldier connects rescue dogs with veterans, its recent goals go beyond that.

Through an academy for service dog trainers, the nonprofit will provide vocational job training for veterans (and civilians), with graduates being eligible for job placement within its organization.

The goal will have “veterans training service dogs for veterans,” said founder Graham Bloem.

The course, called the National Academy of Professional Dog Trainers, is accredited and is pending approval for G.I. Bill funding, “which we will push for until we get it,” said Bloem. It’s anticipated that the academy will open next spring, and online interest applications are now being taken.

Bloem, a professional certified dog trainer, does not shy from meeting tough goals. He “jumped out” of the safety net of a regular paycheck as director of a local pet resort to follow his passion of dog training, he said.

For years, Bloem volunteered his time and skills, honed over a decade ago at the Animal Behavior College, to focus on rescue dogs. He trained nine stray dogs from Iraq; two became the subjects of best-selling books. The therapeutic affection that these combat veterans had for their dogs sparked the idea that Bloem could put his dog-training skills to use to benefit servicemen with post-traumatic stress disorder.

When the Department of Veteran Affairs cut funding in September 2012 for psychiatric service dogs, that “was the big eye-opener to start the nonprofit,” said Bloem.

He has worked at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, successfully rehabilitating dogs that were deemed unadoptable. He has been called a “dog whisperer.”

Tracy Chu agrees. She and her husband, Tony D’Amico, have two rescue dogs, Cali and Dylan.

“We didn’t realize the extent of Cali’s psychological challenges when we rescued her,” said Chu, who contacted Specialty Dog Training — Bloem’s for-profit service organization — to help Cali adjust. “Graham enrolled her in boot camp. After that, she had a better way of coping with the outside world. She was in a much better place.” Dylan also went through the program.

When the family relocated to Rancho Santa Fe, Bloem was there to help everyone through the transition. “Graham is like a psychologist for dogs: He is able to speak to them in a different language,” said Chu. “He clearly has a special connection.”

That connection comes naturally. Bloem spent part of his childhood in South Africa, where some family members were game rangers in Kruger National Park.

“I was handling baby lion cubs at the age of 5 and doing night drives looking for green eyes in the bushes. It was part of my upbringing, and no matter what I was doing, there was always a dog beside me,” he said.

Aware of the grim statistics that millions of pets are euthanized each year while on average there are 22 military-related suicides every day, Bloem felt compelled to address both. Because of Specialty Dog Training’s support, Shelter to Soldier uses 100 percent of all tax-deductible donations for its programs and services.

Service dogs cost between $10,000 and $12,000. Meeting the Americans with Disabilities Act standards, training in socialization, behavior modification, obedience, and more takes a year. Dogs must pass a series of examinations and are housed, given medical care, fed a quality diet and certified locally and nationally.

For veterans to qualify for a trained psychiatric service dog, medical documentation is required. Shelter to Soldier plans to increase the number of dogs it rescues and places, and to add a part-time social worker to act as communication liaison for veterans during the application and approval, said Bloem.

The VA is doing research to prove the positive correlation between pet therapy and easing PTSD, said Bloem. But for now, the VA hospitals refer veterans to Shelter to Soldier because of its professional standards and many successes.

Learn more about Specialty Dog Training and Shelter to Soldier or make a donation at specialtydogtraining.com.

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